In August-September 1985, I traveled as a faculty lecturer with a group of Rice University alumni on a journey from Mongolia to Moscow by way of Siberia. The trip began in the village of Khujirt near Genghis-Khan’s capital of Karakorum. From there we went northwest to the God-forsaken Ulan-Ude and the capital of Eastern Siberia, Irkutsk, and then westward to Krasnoyarsk, famous for its labor camps and more recently for the radar installations. Next came the matchbox city of Novosibirsk and its designer version, Akademgorodok, then Omsk (where Fyodor Dostoevski spent four years in hard labor for political crimes), Tyumen, and Sverdlovsk. Appropriately, we traveled across the Urals in the darkness of the night so that no one could take pictures of the landscape in which the Soviets make the bomb. Finally came Andrei Sakharov’s home of Gorky, and then the centers of the empire: Moscow and Leningrad.
More than seven centuries ago, a similar journey was undertaken by the Mongol horsemen who beat all records in the speed with which they moved across the enormous Siberian plains and established an empire. It covered the territory of the present-day Soviet Union, and its hallmarks were contempt for the individual, glorification of the state, and a drive to unify the world under the scepter of the Khans. At that time, Moscow paid homage to the Mongols; now, it is the other way around.
Even in Mongolia there remain few traces of Genghis Khan, the Emperor of All Men, and of his powerful heirs. The great Mongol victory over the principality of Rus (the grandmother of Mother Russia) with its capital of Kiev is barely mentioned in the museums of Ulan Bator. Moscow does not wish to remind its former masters of their days of glory. Those Mongolians to whom I spoke seemed not to know that seven centuries ago the territory of the present-day Soviet Union had its capital not in Moscow, but in the vast valley near Khujirt, now home to sheep and horses.
Two centuries later, the Mongols withdrew, and the Russians took over Siberia. In some ways, not much’ has changed in this part of the world. Siberia is immense passivity, unwashed faces, uncombed hair, and dull expression on human faces. It is thousands of miles of rolling hills of monotonous beauty. It is archaic wooden houses without plumbing. But there is electricity, and TV antennas decorate many a cottage.
In the 13th century, Southern Siberia was dotted with staging posts which enabled the Khans to maintain a good intelligence and communication system in their empire. Today, Southern Siberia is still a huge military camp whose few transport routes are tightly controlled. In remote areas we saw grass-covered ammunition dumps, trains carrying tanks, machine guns, and other military equipment. Along the 300-mile paved road from Ulan-Ude to Irkutsk, I saw not a single car, only army vehicles and trucks carrying unidentifiable cargo. I saw virtually no cars or private vehicles anywhere in Siberia, except in big cities such as Irkutsk and Novosibirsk. The evident emphasis in Siberia on the military, contrasted with Gorbachev’s smiling peace offensive, made me think of the unflattering descriphon of the inhabitants of Karakorum offered in the 13th century by the friar John de Piano Carpini:
[They] are the greatest liars in the world in dealing with other people, and hardly a true word escapes from their mouths. Initially they flatter, but in the end they sting like scorpions. They are crafty and sly, and wherever possible they try to get the better of everybody else by false pretenses. If they intend some mischief against others they have an admirable ability to keep their intentions secret, so that others cannot BOOKS IN BRIEF take any precautions or countermeasures against their clever plans.
In The Mortal Danger, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn asserts that “[prerevolutionary Russia] with her many nationalities, knew no deportations of entire peoples and no armed separatist movements. . . . Camps there were none; the very concept was unknown.” Yet in Irkutsk, one of the few architectural sights is Polskiy Kostwl, a Roman Catholic church built by 20,000 Polish men who were imprisoned there for taking part in the 1863 uprising against the Russians. In God’s Playground, Norman Davies has described how these unfortunates made their long journey to Siberia “packed into cattle trucks or shackled together in long lines, slowly trudging across the tundra to camps and prisons in the most distant fastnesses of the Empire.” The church served the Siberian Catholic exiles until the October Revolution. It is now used as an office building and a concert hall. Its pseudo-Gothic style contrasts sharply with the nearby Orthodox church and with 19th-century wooden cottages which still house many inhabitants of Irkutsk.
For two centuries now, the Russian population of Siberia has been subsidized by Moscow to stimulate Russification of the area. This goal has been largely accomplished along the southern border of the empire. “The might of Russia is centered in Siberia,” proclaims a huge slogan in the Siberian research center of Akademgorodok. It echoes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s exhortation in From Under the Rubble: “The Northeast reminds us that we, the Russians, are the Northeast of the planet . . . but we have no more than two or three decades . . . [to make these areas truly ours]: [later on], world population explosion will take them away from us.”
Huge industrial enterprises which I saw scattered along the Siberian route and in European Russia contrast sharply with the monumental inertness of the Russian people I met. There seemed to be no active dissatisfaction, and obedience to the authorities was taken for granted.
John de Piano Carpini: “In the whole world there are to be found no more obedient subjects than the Tartars. . . . They pay their lords more respect than any other people. . . . They regard each other almost as members of one family and . . . are accustomed to deprivation.”
While standing in line at the Museum of Religion and Atheism in Leningrad, I engaged in a conversation with those around me. One woman asked: “Why are you Americans so stubborn, why won’t you give in?” I decided that getting arrested for anti-Soviet propaganda was not my idea of spending the afternoon and replied that perhaps the line was not an appropriate place to discuss such matters. “You are right,” said the woman, “it is not for us to discuss such matters.”
Russian efforts to propagandize our tour were less heavy-handed than they have been on previous visits. Gone are the grim Intourist guides of yore who sounded like rural Party propagandists. Today, Intourist personnel wear Western clothes and joke about Gorky Park, Hedrick Smith’s The Russians, and the possibility of being shipped off to Siberia. They speak excellent English and are familiar with American idiom. In Novosibirsk, we heard of the “satellite town” of Akademgorodok, and the Lake Baikal region was declared to be “one vast recreational area.” Finetuning of PR goes so far as to make Intourist guides wear their wedding bands on the left hand (normally, Russians wear them on the right hand) and to assign “typically Russian” first names to them such as Natasha, Boris, Alex, and so forth (I discovered by accident that our train conductor’s real name was Filemon but he told us to call him Vladimir).
John de Piano Carpini: “The Tartars fight more by stratagem than by sheer force.”
The contempt of Russian officials toward us, the starry-eyed and mono-lingual American tourists, was very much in evidence. (I could detect no such contempt among the non-Russian Soviets I met during the journey.) We were treated as suckers in restaurants and hotels, in concert halls (where shoddy performances were scheduled for several hundred foreign tourists at a time), and at airports. Rude comments about us were exchanged in Russian by Intourist personnel. When I asked the receptionist at a Moscow hotel for help with lost luggage, our Intourist guide interrupted me and told the receptionist not to bother because I could take care of the matter myself by going to the airport. At meals, we were repeatedly refused the second cup of coffee or tea “because we paid for 100 grams of each only.” Requests for bottled or boiled water invariably met with, “Who will pay for it?” Our American guide was more than generous in paying extra for everything, but even so we were consistently shortchanged on both service and food.
Fra Carpini: “They are mean and greedy, and if they want something, they will not stop begging and asking for it, until they have got it. They cling fiercely to what they have and in making gifts they are extremely miserly.”
According to official figures, Russians comprise slightly less than half of the present population of the Soviet Union (137 out of 275 million). Yet a visitor is shielded from any contacts with the non-Russians except through folklore or handicrafts whose origin and meaning are explained by Russian-speaking guides. One gets an impression that a major PR campaign has been launched in the Soviet Union to wipe out national cultures and replace them by folk dances, songs, and crafts of a particular ethnic region. From Mongolia to Moscow, we were treated to an endless display of folk music and art from various republics, handicrafts displayed in ethnographical museums, and the like. Amidst the dazzling display of colors and costumes, it was easy to forget that national cultures rely little on such paraphernalia and quite a bit on the life of the mind.
Only Russian culture is exempt from the monopoly of the lowest common denominator. Contacts with the West can take place only through Russians. In Mongolia, we met a visiting Moldavian folk ensemble. Our efforts to establish independent contact ended with the Russian head of the ensemble stepping forward and professing to represent the Moldavian youngsters. The suppression includes a ban on translations of any foreign work into any language spoken in the Soviet Union if no Russian translation of this work exists. It is little wonder that the equation of the Russians and the Soviets is evident even in Mongolia. An educated Mongolian told me: “We don’t like those people from the north, but what can we do? We are afraid of them.”
Fra Carpini: “It is their intention to overthrow the whole world and reduce it to slavery.”
In the 19th century, the Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev wrote ironically: “Panmongolism! The word is wild, but I like the way it sounds.” In 1918, the Russian poet Aleksandr Blok thus addressed the West: “There are millions of you. But we are a horde that cannot be counted. And now the time has come. . . . You must stoop before Russia—the Sphinx; for if you do not. . . . we have nothing to lose, and treachery is our weapon.” In one of his most publicized poems, the 20th-century Soviet Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky said, “An individual is a zero, he is sheer nonsense.”
“What does the Red Star symbolize?” asked an amiable Rice alumnus during a city tour. “The live continents,” answered the Intourist guide without hesitation.